THE worldwide revival of the ancient Christian practice of meditation, using a single prayer word or mantra, is a remarkable phenomenon of our times, according to Dom Laurence Freeman OSB.
Fr Freeman recently headed a weekend conference of over 70 meditation group leaders who gathered in London from all over Britain.
The meditation group is both a sign of the times and a great symbol in the church and in society. It is part of an ancient tradition of Christians coming together to pray. Not to argue, debate or to organise just to be silent and still in the presence of God within us and around us.
This kind of fellowship and communion was the distinguishing mark and power of the early church. Yet there is something new about the Christian meditation group in the late 20th century and it is the special legacy of John Main, an Anglo-Irish Benedictine monk who died, a comparatively young man, nearly 10 years ago.
While serving with the British Civil Service in the Far East, John Main was taught how to meditate by a Ilindu holy man. Later, after he had joined the Benedictines, Fr John discovered that this was how the desert fathers had prayed back in the fourth century.
What is new is the confident, clear and particular focus on the prayer of the heart and the understanding that this prayer is both personal and ecclesiastical; it is the prayer of Jesus himself.
It is no coincidence that the church is simultaneously recovering the awareness that the gospel must be lived socially as well as personally, with a courageous commitment to peace, justice and the rights and dignity of all. The goal of the Christian vocation is the marriage of the contemplative and the active.
As the contemplative life of the church deepens, so will its social influence expand. Contemplativcs are contemporaries. They live in the present moment of God and as brothers and sisters.
The meditation group carries this vision deep into the heart of the church. It exemplifies John Main's and others' conviction that the full experience of Christ within is a call made to each of us.
The mantra, which we repeat silently to ourselves, does not belong to any particular religious tradition. It is part of the universal spiritual heritage.
As Christians we arc indebted to John Main for revealing this forgotten treasdre and for teaching it again in the language of our own tune.
So we need to become acquainted with the tradition that the mantra enriches the poverty of spirit and that it positions us in silence and stillness there.
We need courage to begin to
meditate and humility to persevere. In the group a seeker can be introduced to meditation, slowly becoming familiar with a sense of prayer that may seem strange at first, but learning the difference between prayer and introspection, between discipline and technique.
As the two daily periods of prayer, morning and evening, settle in as an integral part of life, they become the spiritual centre of the day, uniting contemplation and action, setting the tone for all that one says and does.
Meditation can begin as a journey in faith. At times it can be a hard journey. Usually after a year or two there is a real crisis of commitment. We can only find the courage in humility to go deeper, to "let go" more generously rather than give up.
In the meditation group we discover to what degree Christianity is not an institution, not an ideology or a morality.
It is an oral tradition of holiness. Such an oral tradition of holiness does not set out to exhort, compel, instruct or cajole. It is not a sermon. It teaches.
Christ exemplifies that oral tradition. Like Socrates and the Buddha he did not write down his teaching. Like them, he taught in to the open air. His disciples were his books.